The Dangers of Working in Hot Weather

New rules to aim to protect workers from heat-related illnesses during a summer of record-breaking heat

Construction workers
People who work outside, such as construction crews and farmworkers, are at risk for heat-related illnesses. Pexels

As temperatures soar across the country this summer, federal and state governments are ramping up their efforts to protect workers from heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is continuing work on its proposed heat-safety rules, a process that began last October. Meanwhile, the agency’s federal investigators have been proactively inspecting workplaces in industries, such as agriculture and construction, where employees are at greatest risk of experiencing heat-related issues on warm days.

As James Dinneen reports for New Scientist, OSHA carried out 705 heat-related inspections in 45 states between April and July, which is more than the last three years of these inspections combined. OSHA is also educating employers about potential heat-related health risks and offering recommendations for keeping workers safe.

The federal workplace rules could still be years in the making. But in the meantime, states are taking heat safety into their own hands. California regulations require employers to provide outdoor workers with additional cool-down rest breaks, fresh water and access to shade during hot weather. The state also mandates that employers in some industries check for signs of heat illness and take additional precautions when the temperature at outdoor worksites reaches 95 degrees Fahrenheit.

Earlier this year, Colorado adopted similar heat-safety rules requiring shade, breaks and water for indoor and outdoor worksites. Likewise, worker safety agencies in Oregon, Washington and Nevada rolled out new heat illness prevention rules.

Worker in greenhouse
Workers in greenhouses and other at-risk facilities suffer during heatwaves. Pexels

All of these initiatives are aimed at keeping workers safe and healthy during periods of extreme heat, which are becoming more common and more intense because of human-caused climate change, per the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures and high humidity can lead to heatstroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat rash, sunburn and even death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People who work outside and in some indoor settings, such as greenhouses and facilities without air conditioning, are particularly vulnerable. Farmworkers, construction crews and even delivery drivers have all been working through record-breaking heat waves this summer—and, in some instances, risking their health in the process.

Between 1992 and 2019, heat killed 907 U.S. workers, with an average of 32 deaths per year, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Heat-related illnesses and injuries totaled 31,560 incidents between 2011 and 2019.

In 2020, the most recent data available, heat exposure killed 56 people, reports Anna Phillips of the Washington Post. However, these figures are “likely vast underestimates,” according to OSHA, because additional illnesses and fatalities may not be reported as heat-related.

Still, industry groups have opposed heat-safety rules in some states and they’re likely to take the same stance toward any federal safeguards, per the Washington Post. Advocates may be facing an uphill battle, but with workers’ lives hanging in the balance and more heat waves likely on the way, they’re continuing their push for more protections.

Beyond protections for workers, some cities are appointing “chief heat officers to help prevent heat-related deaths and illnesses among all residents.

“With the climate crisis, the summers are getting hotter, and if employers don’t better protect workers, we’re going to see more deaths,” David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University, tells NBC News’ Adiel Kaplan.